Before actor, model and activist Nyle DiMarco created his new Netflix docusoap, Deaf U, he competed on both America’s Next Top Model and Dancing with the Stars. But even though he won both shows, the experience was not entirely positive for DiMarco; in both projects, he notes, “I was just ‘The Deaf Guy.’”
“No one really took the time to really get to know me and who I really was—things I liked, my interests,” DiMarco told The Daily Beast during a recent interview. “There were no real layers that were explored. I just, you know, was kind of one-dimensional in that regard.”
DiMarco remembered that experience as he began to put together his own series, which follows several deaf college students as they navigate all the usual struggles of that age: chaotic romances, social circles that shift like tectonic plates on ecstasy, and above all, figuring out who the hell they want to be as adults.
Deaf U is set in Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University, where students are all deaf and hard of hearing. And as its subjects make clear, deafness is far from a monolithic experience. Race, upbringing, sexuality, and more all shape how deafness fits in with the students’ identities.
Case in point: At one point a student named Dalton Taylor tells a fellow football player about the time he flushed his hearing aid down the toilet when he started attending a deaf school. The other student, Rodney—who uses a cochlear implant—is shocked. “I’m sorry, but that’s some white people stuff right there,” he says. “If I flushed $1,000 down the toilet, think about my mom. And she’s a Black mom.”
But it’s not hard to guess why some hearing people might have a less nuanced understanding of deafness. For too long, media has largely defined deaf people from the perspective of hearing people. (Example: Why on Earth are hearing people ever hired to fill deaf roles in film and television?) Deaf U, the first project of its kind, is a first step toward changing that—so the pressure was on to get it right.
Thankfully, it all does click together. By the time you finish Deaf U, you’ll almost certainly be desperate to learn more—starting, perhaps, with sign language. (As a jumping-off point, you’ll at least know how to clock a Trump supporter simply based on how they sign his name; if they’re not using a sign that looks a lot like a toupee, you have your answer.)
But more importantly, you’ll fall in love with the delightful, messy students at Deaf U’s center—obsessing over who’s dating whom, who dated whom, and who just hooked up in the bathroom at a Halloween party.
To understand the wide variety of experiences within Gallaudet, look no further than Cheyenna Clearbrook and Alexa Paulay-Simmons—friends who appear in the series, but whose experiences of the university could not have been more different.
Cheyenna, a YouTuber with over 100,000 subscribers, struggles throughout the series to find her place at Gallaudet; some students ostracize her because she went to “mainstream,” hearing schools before attending the university, unlike those who attended deaf schools throughout their lives.
Alexa, meanwhile, was among those students who attended deaf schools from an early age—one of the factors that sets apart a group of students known as “elites.”
As they explained during a joint interview, both Cheyenna and Alexa were both nervous and excited to join Deaf U’s cast. As Alexa put it, “I knew this was a really, really important opportunity to spread awareness and change society for the better—to allow more access, essentially, to the deaf community.”
Added Cheyenna, “Often, we don’t see a lot of deaf representation—especially in some of the movies and shows, they’ll cast a hearing person to play a deaf person when we deserve to be recognized, and we don’t understand why they’re choosing a hearing cast.” (As Alexa noted, a lot of hearing people try to teach ASL on YouTube despite only knowing a few signs. “It’s like, no, shift the focus to actual deaf creators!” she said. “Please, give them the spotlight that they’ve worked so hard to deserve.”)
Although Cheyenna befriends Alexa and some of the other “elites” throughout the series, others never quite warm to her. At one point an “elite” student criticizes Cheyenna’s YouTube channel for, as she sees it, catering to hearing audiences.
“The deaf community, they see me as something from another world,” Cheyenna says in the show. “And they don’t want me in their world.”
“A lot of people give my friends, the quote-unquote ‘Elite,’ a bad rap because they seem closed off and stuck-up,” Alexa tells Cheyenna at one point. “It’s more about the fact that we all grew up together.”
One could chalk this social divide up to college cliquishness—and in some moments, it can appear that way. But really, it’s more than that. It’s also about the fight to preserve deaf culture—and deciding what, exactly, that preservation should look like.
DiMarco, an “elite” himself, attributes his confidence in his own identity to the fact he attended deaf schools and was immersed in the culture from an early age. For him, being “elite” is not about status, but about access.
“A lot of times ‘elites’ are labeled that because we had access specifically to language from an early age,” DiMarco said. “But you know, I think we need to keep that in perspective from elitism.”
Cheyenna and Alexa noted that deaf culture extends far beyond sign language alone; it also includes art forms like ASL poetry and deaf visual art, known as De’VIA (Deaf View/Image Art). To them, preserving deaf culture is about keeping the community together and keeping those art forms alive—and making sure that when their culture breaks into the mainstream, it’s deaf people who benefit, not hearing people who’ve dipped a toe in for the sake of profits.
As for the “elites,” Cheyenna and Alexa agreed that the moniker connotes privilege. And as with all privileges, its positive or negative effect comes down to how the individual wields it. Cheyenna, Alexa, and DiMarco agree that elites’ access can be empowering—not just for them, but for everyone they lift up with them.
“There is an impact, and I do see there’s a positive and a negative—I mean, in everything,” Cheyenna said. “Everything has a positive and a negative perspective.” Elites, she noted, “can be in better positions, for example, in the deaf schools. They have the ability to help each other and continue that group and that clique, and they have their own language and accessibility.”
“Of course it can be divisive,” Alexa said. “But you know, it’s important that we recognize the privilege that we have and also how we’re able to help others and support other people in having a better quality of life.”
As intriguing and necessary as Deaf U is as a window into the deaf community, it’s also just great TV.
Each student’s story in the series is captured with empathy and care—and their experiences can get intense. Renate Rose, for instance, is working to overcome trauma from the domestic violence she witnessed as a child. Cheyenna’s misery at Gallaudet becomes overwhelming as the series goes on, forcing her to decide whether it’s the right place for her to thrive.
Perhaps the thorniest subject covered within the show is Alexa’s past relationship with another student, Daequan Taylor—whom she confronts in the first episode about trying to get her pregnant by not pulling out during sex. Throughout the series, Alexa processes both what happened and how she wants to move on from it—and Daequan begins to look within to figure out what caused him to make such a decision in the first place.
Alexa, now in a serious, long-term relationship with another boyfriend, admits, “It’s not easy to watch my past on a screen... To say, ‘Oh, I did this, somebody said this and I said that.’ Because it's essentially reliving it.” But producers did give her some sense of control over what parts of that story would appear on screen and what should remain private.
“Of course there are a lot of sensitive issues that the show touches upon,” diMarco says, “but again, it was really critical to us that we show exactly what they go through as college students. Right? The same thing that hearing people go through, that they’re not immune to in the college experience either.”
There’s also a heaping dose of all the lighter moments that make a collegiate docusoap sing—students flirting and gorging on burgers at football games, taking romantic dips in the university pool, and drinking their way through Halloween parties, all the while gossiping to their hearts’ content.
In other words, to quote Alexa, Deaf U reminds us that deaf people “eat, breathe, and sleep the exact same way hearing people do.”
“There’s nothing really special about us, except for the fact that we can’t hear and we have our own culture,” Alexa said. “Of course that’s incredible. But really, I think it’s key that we kind of show that.”
To Cheyenna, projects like Deaf U and another upcoming deaf-focused documentary from Netflix, Audible, are signs that better representation is on the way.
“We need to see more of that,” she said. “I mean, this is 2020, so yeah—it’s time. It’s time.”